June 18, 2024
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June 18, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Personal Reflections on Second (Vacation) Homes

It’s almost summertime, so thoughts often turn to vacation homes, also known as second homes. Our family has owned one since before I was born, and I was the fortunate recipient of this home as a 21st birthday gift from my mom who was the previous owner. To ensure added privacy, I subsequently purchased wooded acreage behind the house. So here, based on our family’s long experience, are just a few thoughts and caveats about buying and owning a second home.

If you think that you would enjoy vacationing in a particular area, then before you buy it may be advisable to lease a house or apartment so that you can live there during the season(s) that you intend to be in residence. While there, familiarize yourself with the area amenities, the neighbors and any local issues that will affect you and your home. Here are some items to consider:

Research local crime statistics, especially if your home will be unoccupied for long periods of time. If you are buying a true seasonal dwelling and you will not be in residence over the winter, will your home be secure from intrusions such as criminals, floods, etc.? Do the police regularly patrol the area? How large is the police force? Will you have a neighbor who will notify you if anything is amiss while you are away—for example, if a tree falls on your house? If your house is within commuting distance then it might be a good idea to visit the property at least once a month during the times of the year that it is vacant.

Consider items as mundane as water and sewer issues: will you have a municipal system or a private well and leach field? If you are planning to build, then what are the local building codes? Do these codes encourage/protect any of your special requirements such as passive solar construction? Check the zoning: If, for example, you want to build a home in an area zoned as rural, what is the minimum amount of acreage that you must own before you can build? If you want to build on a smaller plot and you knowingly buy it with the intent to build new construction, then you will need a variance, and if the need for a variance is self-created, then you may be denied and you will be stuck with an unbuildable lot! Therefore, do your homework before you buy so that you can build what you want to build without a hassle with the zoning boards and with your neighbors! How easy is it to get a variance if you want to build or expand—that is, how amenable have the zoning board and the zoning board of appeals been to such requests? Flooding, soil erosion, aquifers and other environmental issues will impact your property either directly or because of area conditions. Are any major commercial or residential building projects planned that will impact your home site? Two of the best ways to discover what is going on in your area are the local newspapers and the town and village board meetings that are open to the public.

If your second home is to be a weekend home, then how long a drive are you comfortable with making every week? Will you have a traffic-congested trek to and from your home, leaving you drained of energy and not at all relaxed and rested, thus defeating the purpose of using the home as a relaxing getaway? Or, if you will be living in the house for an entire summer, perhaps the length of the commute does not matter so much.

How different do you want the vacation home to be from your customary location and lifestyle? Do you need all of the modern conveniences that are in your primary residence, or will you enjoy roughing it a bit? What about the local population: Do you want your vacation home to be in the same area in which your primary-residence neighbors reside (the Hamptons, anyone?) or do you want a real change with an entirely different group of people, a different culture, etc.?

Speaking of lifestyle, do you prefer a single, freestanding home away from the neighbors or do you want more of a communal social life in a homeowners’ association? In the latter case, your home maintenance issues (snow removal, for example) will be taken care of but your lifestyle will also be constrained by the association’s bylaws and by the rulings of the association board of directors.

Not only should you consider the human neighbors but you should also think about your possible co-existence with the local wildlife. We all know about the seashore and its denizens, but on the mountain where I live I have occasionally encountered snakes. Rarely, a tiny field mouse scampers across my living room or takes a (fatal) swim in my toilet. Deer who live in my woods regularly cross my front and rear lawns: we check each other out for a minute or two and then they depart. A large black bear has recently taken up residence in the area and was mentioned at last week’s village board meeting. And, of course, from time to time there are the mosquitoes.

Many people purchase second homes with the intention of living in them post-retirement. If that is your aim, then make certain that you are comfortable with conditions in the area year-round. It’s lovely in the summer but will you enjoy living there when the snow falls? What will you do to keep busy during the winter months when the summer recreational events end? Check out the senior citizens’ center, the library, etc. Most importantly, make certain that medical care is competent and close by. Check out ambulance and fire services: are they volunteer or municipal? Where are the nearest hospitals and doctors and dentists? Grocery stores?

Another important consideration is affordability. Make certain that you can afford to buy (or build) your home, that you can afford to pay the mortgage, taxes and insurance, and that you can afford to maintain your property. Property taxes may rise but for sure they will be higher if you own a year-round home as opposed to a seasonal dwelling. Emergencies do occur: the sudden need for a new well, a replacement roof, the need to remove a perilously tilting large tree, etc. Can you cope, both financially and emotionally, with these unanticipated, disruptive and potentially expensive surprises?

If you cannot or are not disinclined to cope with repairs and maintenance of your second home, make sure that you have access to competent plumbers, electricians, tree surgeons, etc. If you enjoy taking care of the grounds and have the proper tools to do so, then that’s fine, but if you hate disposing of leaves, trimming dead tree branches, etc., then be sure that you can hire someone else to do it for you. Even out in the sticks, local municipal codes may mandate that you take care of your property.

If you intend to rent out your second home, then familiarize yourself with the tax codes regarding rental properties. Also, make certain that you have a sufficient amount and the right kind of insurance to protect yourself and that your tenants have rental insurance and that you have a good attorney to draft the appropriate lease. Also, ask yourself if you are comfortable having strangers occupy your home, use your furniture and dishes, etc. Do you permit the tenants to have pets? And so on; i.e., what is your comfort level?

One final thought: Even though you will be a property owner, if your home is not a primary residence then you will discover that you cannot fully participate in the life of your locality: you cannot vote in local elections and referenda; you have no vote regarding how your tax money is spent. In the normal course of events, this may not be of major concern. However, if a local situation that will impact your property and your lifestyle arises, then your lack of voting rights may be of concern to you.

By Vivian Oleen, Associate Broker, Sopher Realty

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